The Return of the Lost Daughter: Can I Write in English?

The Return of the Lost Daughter: Can I Write in English?

By Natalie Nera

Natalie Nera

I have been obsessed with this question for many years. I have read books about it. I have read what other authors think and say. I have written several essays on the subject. Sometimes I wake up at night, deliberating on many aspects of this issue, having furious arguments with myself. One of my passions, yearning to understand and unravel something that is perhaps in essence unknowable.

When I moved to Britain fifteen years ago, – and my reasons were entirely personal -, I was clueless about the price I was going to pay. I was a young woman with eight years of work as a journalist behind me, one translated and published book (9/11 by Noam Chomsky) and a stack of magazine publications.

All of a sudden, the tool of my trade was not there, I was taken out of the business that works almost entirely on personal recommendations and contacts. I tried a correspondence course in English to improve my chances, and gave up after the first assignment because I hated everything about it; I joined a local writing group who generously tolerated my lame attempts with word for word translations into English. It took me the best part of those fifteen years to get to the stage when I felt: “Now, I can try this. I am as ready as I will ever be.” I don’t write conventionally like a native speaker and never will. My limitations are obvious and frustrating but also bring out another part of my creativity. I am an artist who can only paint with her feet. I am a deaf composer. I am a blind architect.

This very personal experience of being imprisoned in a stalemate situation where I have many skills I cannot use because they are language and culture-dependent, is also another reason for my preoccupation with this matter: can you write creatively in your second language?

The simple answer is ‘yes’. There are many literati around the world who produce beautiful prose, scripts or poetry in a language different from their mother tongue. Kapka Kassabova in Britain and Ilya Kaminski in the USA prove that it is possible. Milan Kundera? Vladimir Nabokov? Or more recently Aleksandar Heman? Indeed, a very simple answer with complicated and entangled explanations. It is not enough to tell people it is possible. The question posed should be about how likely it is. Not everyone can become a success story.

Josef Škvorecký, one of the most underrated authors of the XX century, an émigré, a scholar, translator, noted that many great writers in exile failed artistically.[i] Failures don’t make it into textbooks. Only fantastically talented artists, who achieve fame, do.

I am not a great writer and my exile was self-imposed, an act of unintended self-harm. But I understand. You don’t know what you have lost until it is gone. You might think that, at the age of computers and the Internet, it should not matter, that you can continue writing, uninterrupted, anywhere. But you can’t. You can’t compete against the locals. You have nothing special to offer and more deficiencies to care to mention. Your context is gone. Your words are slowly going too, being replaced by a peculiar hybrid of multilingual stew. You become a stranger in your own homeland. You are a stranger in your new land. Your path is murky, grim, perhaps finished forever, those promises and endless opportunities taken by someone else, and you don’t know who you are anymore. Your stint at the call centre. Cleaning B & B. Washing up in the local accommodation place. Teaching Russian in the evening at the local college. Freelance jobs nobody ends up paying you for although you had spent nights slaving over them.

Depressed? Oh God, was I depressed? Yes. It could have broken me. It nearly did. Here I am now with three published books in my mother tongue under my belt, several magazine publications in English and my translations of Czech poetry begin to get noticed, too. It sounds grand but, trust me, it is not. Having said that, I am more confident in my ability to do my job. I am also more confident at not succeeding: rejections are an opportunity to improve. They mean that I have to work harder. Re-draft. Try again elsewhere. In that, I find a weird obsessive joy that finally there is a clear direction I lacked all those years ago.

[i] Josef Skvorecky,. “At Home in Exile: Czech Writers in the West.” (Books Abroad 50.2, 1976), pp. 308-313

Natalie Crick: On writing ‘Chadlington Village, Hampshire’

George Shaw, Poets Day, 2005-2006
George Shaw, Poets’ Day, 2005 – 2006

Natalie Crick: On writing ‘Chadlington Village, Hampshire’


On Monday (16th September) submissions for this year’s Mslexia and Poetry Book Society Poetry and Pamphlet Prizes 2019 closed. Last year one of my poems, ‘Chadlington Village, Hampshire’ was a runner-up in the competition. You can read the judge Carol Ann Duffy’s thoughts about my poem on the Poetry Book Society website, at runner-up-natalie-crick and more wonderful prize-winning poems are available to read here too.


Chadlington Village, Hampshire


The missing girl’s name was Elizabeth Gill.

She was 12 when she disappeared.

She was last seen wearing a pink jumper.


The villagers kept vigil. Prayers,

curled with the cold, drifted and strayed.

Doors were locked. Rumours spread.

Police divers slipped into the lake by the hill.


Come Autumn, the sheep are fearful. They

scatter, champing on panics of sun. Mr Tilley and

the old dog guide them into the other field.

After the storm, leaves collect in the warm

ditches. Somewhere in the dark, the gilt eyes

of foxes open. Here, where things live and perish.


Jordan and Dave soon marry. Jordan’s curls

are starred with buttercups and lilies. Jan gossips

that the couple are far too young for love.

They marry on the village green. Behind the poplars,

a flutter of wind ruffles a thin, pink sweater.

At night there are dreams about where the girl might be.

Dreams about her ghosting the moor.

Dreams about her rising from the lake,

blue of cheek and lung.


Tomatoes swell in June. Soon the fruit flushes red.

Jan and Tom collect wild herbs; thyme, bay, sage.

Ken eats straight from the pan, refuses to

wash his hands beforehand.

Tom touches the steak on his dinner plate

with a finger, watches the blood seep.


With July comes the Summer Fete.

Chinese lanterns dazzle at dusk to charm the crowd.

Someone has laid out drinks. A sandalwood scent

perfumes the air filled with champagne laughter.

In the background a brass band toots and booms.

Young Kerry flaunts two pink roses;

one at her hip, one on her breast.

She and Dina dance to the beat,

dance into the shadow of a black poplar,

where the girl was last seen.


Another Spring, another March, another month

spent wondering.

Jan scolds her crocuses – don’t open!

Remember, Spring just isn’t Spring anymore!

On Wednesday, a thin man is seen

and he’s moving through the wheat.

But maybe he’s the Father. It’s hard to know

in this light. He keeps coming back

to the place he remembers most.


All of the Junes go by like gusts of milkweed

and still the girl is missed. There are sightings:

Mrs Tilley saw her at the visitor centre

buying a Magnum ice-cream.


In August, heat rises in mists of gold.

Some suspect the cow field to harbour

secrets and aren’t shy to voice their opinions.

From a window across the green, Tom watches

Kerry undress in a pool of yellow bedroom light.

Butterfly eggs are laid on a leaf’s veined spine.


The missing girl’s name was Elizabeth, or Liz or Lizzy.

She has not been forgotten.

She has been looked for in the lambing sheds, in the lofts,

in the lake by the hills.


Mrs Tilley’s dog finds her stained skirt.

Whilst the village is sleeping, moths breathe in the green,

flit from lit to shadow, from seen to unseen.


Previously published in Mslexia (Issue 80, 2018/19), the Poetry Book Society website and listed in PBS Spring Bulletin (2019).


I wrote ‘Chadlington Village, Hampshire’ following a workshop by Sean O’Brien delivered for my Summer School 2018 module as part of my MA in Writing Poetry at Newcastle University. I’ve provided an insight into the thoughts behind my writing process and inspirations for the poem.



Having enjoyed Sean O’Brien’s session on the long poem, I decided to write my first ever long poem inspired by a novel I have recently read; Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor.

Adorned with beautiful, poetic rhythms of the natural world, McGregor defines the sad truth that, while a young girl remains missing, everyday life must go on.1


David Morley asks the question: ‘What are the qualities that make for a successful long poem or sequence? Are they sound, scene-making and tone?’ 2 I came to the conclusion that long-poems need to do more than simply narrate; an underlying shape, coherence and musicality are needed.


I observed in ‘At the Fishhouses’ by Elizabeth Bishop that simplicity in structure creates a powerful poem. The repeated refrain: ‘cold dark deep and absolutely clear’ strengthens the form. 3  I repeat the missing girl’s name at the beginning and end to remind the reader that she is still to be found. However, through the passing of time her name is now remembered as ‘Elizabeth, or Liz or Lizzy’; perhaps the villagers are beginning to forget.



Oliver states: ‘texture is vital to all poetry. It is what makes the poem an experience’.4 I admired the great detail apparent in ‘At the Fishhouses’ and tried to flood my poem with anecdotes of village life, when ‘with July comes the summer fete’, in combination with McGregor-inspired images of natural beauty, such as ‘butterfly eggs are laid on a leaf’s

veined spine’. All of this occurs against the painful passage of time.


By repeating months of the years and varying the tone my poem developed an incantatory dimension and a certain pitch of intensity; facets I had admired in Alice Notley’s poem, ‘I the People’.5


At the close of ‘At the Fishhouses’ it becomes apparent that the power of apprehension is momentary. Time marches on, and the moment of finding out what happened to Elizabeth Giles may be gone forever; ‘our knowledge is historical, flowing, flown’.6





1 Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13 (London: 4th Estate, 2017)

2 David Morely, ‘So you want to write a long poem’, Poetry Review, 98.2 (2008), 81-84 (p. 83)

3 Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems 1927-1979 (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1983), p. 65

4  Oliver, A Poetry Handbook, p. 94

5 Alice Notley, Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press: Connecticut, 2008) p. 171-172

6  Bishop, The Complete Poems 1927-1979, p. 66

The Return of the Lost Daughter: How to Be a Creative Mother



Summer holidays are difficult for any working parent, including writers


The Return of the Lost Daughter: How to Be a Creative Mother


When Cyril Connolly famously (or infamously) wrote about “a pram in the hall” as an enemy of good art, thus unleashing one of the most perpetuating myths about creativity, he did not think of mothers. He thought of middle-class men. Those men, however, were not expected to do any actual childcare, change nappies or fit their writing between school runs. Connolly’s observations were merely about the distraction of having to provide for the family that would lead those men away from true art.

I am not going to lie: it is not easy to write regularly while also having duties as a mother, carer and wife. Even to work on this blog entry, I had to get up at 3 am, beating myself up that it was actually ten past three, which means that by the time I sit at the computer, it is late – 3:30 am, the whole half-hour less to write in the morning.  I started this practice of writing in early hours with my first poor attempts at poetry in English (not my mother tongue). I continued it throughout my postgraduate degree at Newcastle University, which is what got me through the course. It meant that even our recent decision to move the house and the country did not kill my chances to submit my dissertation on time, if at all. I was ready for the summer anyway.  Kids’ school holidays mean that you don’t get a minute to yourself. Re-drafting my portfolio in such circumstances, yes, that is possible. Starting from scratch in July would probably mean that I would have never completed it on time. With the help of reduced sleep and assistance from my lovely tutors at the university who agreed to conduct tutorials over Skype, I managed all of it.

Completing any piece of writing, however long or short, can be achieved only with a near-military precision planning. You don’t get the luxury of procrastination. Here are three hours for your writing. That is it. Use them wisely. I got some of my stories and poems published in four different countries in the past eighteen months. I got my translation work from and to English published and noticed in three different countries.  I am proud of every single little achievement – and every single rejection. They are all my own. I am not an aristocrat who pursues a noble occupation of writing novels/poems/pamphlets/essays, and everyone in the household has to be quiet and at his service. I am not an upper-class wife who brings out the obligatory book for children, while insanely talented writers sit at home, unable to get noticed by an agent or publisher. Nor am I a celebrity who pretends to produce a novel or a memoir but the pen was that of a ghostwriter.

Instead, I have an understanding husband; I have some fantastic friends and writing buddies with whom I can share my victories and failures. Failing hurts but it is an important part of the process. It is even more important to know that you are not on your own at that moment, and you are able to reach out to someone you trust.

I am a mum of two young boys, whom I will wake up at 6:30 am. I will make porridge, fold their school clothes on the chair, fit in twenty minutes of ironing, make a sandwich that will go into the older son’s lunch box, take the boys to their respective schools, only to return and work on a commissioned proofreading for four hours before picking up kids again. Then the usual routine of school preparation, supper, and bedtime come 3 am in the morning, I start again.

Does it sound dreadful? Perhaps.  Doing creative work and being a parent may be unthinkable for some but many authors, including my now former tutors, have children, have families, and face the same dilemmas like any other working parent – how to fit it all in. In my case, parenthood helped me find focus. I felt a profound change in myself when our children were born. For the first time in my life, I had the strength to admit to myself that I love telling stories in any shape or form.  It was the reason why in my twenties, I spent eight years working as a journalist. Writing has been by my side since the age of ten. You may dismiss it as a mere hobby, as people frequently do, but you could as well dismiss the colour of my eyes or my height.  Writing is who I am.

Failing Better: Dealing with Rejection by Natalie Crick


Blog Post Wednesday 11th September Ilustration

I think it’s important not to set the bar too high. Rejection and failure is surely something that even the best poets will encounter at some point in their careers. I think we all see ourselves as a failure in some ways. I have definitely considered myself a failure in different ways at different times during my life. Failure can be clear to those around us, or more hidden inside of us. Sometimes I think, as poets, we can take inspiration from our ‘failures’, whatever they may be, to write beautiful poems. And, of course, a successful achievement to one individual is a failure to another.

I obviously have been exposed to some negative remarks about my poetry over the years, but I actually do not regard anything as a ‘criticism’ but more as ‘developmental feedback’. I actually find more negative feedback far more useful than praise, because I like to continue to try to learn from others and improve different areas of my writing.

I think rejection is something that all poets should expect to happen to them. I was lucky in that the first few poems I sent anywhere in my late teens just so happened to be accepted by a few poetry magazines (‘Alliterati Magazine’, ‘Cannon’s Mouth Journal’, ‘Cyphers Magazine’) but I was obviously soon initially disappointed by the numerous rejections that followed. I receive far more rejections than acceptances when I send poetry submissions to literary journals or enter poetry competitions. I have quite a resilient personality so usually I don’t feel too disheartened when submissions are rejected these days, but I can understand why many poets are reluctant to submit anywhere in fear of receiving a rejection. I think it’s important to remember that selection for poetry magazines often takes into consideration how an individual’s poem will work alongside other poems in the same issue, and of course competition from other talented poets is always high.


Read more about Natalie Crick’s writing process, her tips for coping with writer’s block, the benefits of having a writing routine and much more in her recent interview with the Poetry Book Society on their website at:

The Return of the Lost Daughter


On the Move

The decision to leave Britain after fifteen years with my British husband and two young kids came suddenly this spring but kept creeping into our conversations for many years as a theoretical discussion about our options and choices.

When you live in an international marriage, the debate where to live is ongoing, you never stop. In our dreams, we would have a property in Bohemia and divide our time equally between both countries. In July we would be visiting many chateaux in Moravia and Bohemia, August would be spent in Edinburgh and the Highlands, September in Prague, tasting burčák,  a type of fermented grape juice full of alcohol and yeast that is yet to become wine but is moreish and heady when you drink it. In the winter we would travel back to Bohemia to enjoy snow, and if there was time, we could pop to neighbouring Austria.

Our children would choose where they want to study when they grow up. They could go to Amsterdam if they liked, or Berlin or Bologna. They are Europeans like us, they are citizens of the world. Our only obstacle was income, I could afford to travel to Prague maybe only every two to three years for a short visit but surely we could sort this out in the future with two regular incomes. Those theoretical possibilities, our hopes became almost obliterated after 2016.

The dreaded B-word was not the only reason for the move, it hardly ever is. Crucially, it was my husband who suggested it and drove it. I never wanted to be the one to say it, to make a firm commitment, push everyone to do it.  I knew how hard it was for me and did not want my family to suffer in the same way.

I spent the first three years in the UK crying myself to sleep. I could speak the language but felt lost. Nobody thought of giving me a hand or supporting me because if you don’t ask for help, you don’t need it, right? But what if you don’t know, you need help? What if one of the problems is you feel lonely, isolated, you have no one to talk to? What if the problem is that even the simplest tasks are hard and you are like a five-year-old, for whom buying a packet of cheddar is too difficult? There are rows and shelves of cheddar in the shop, which one do you choose?

My husband would be in the same situation but unlike me, with an added handicap of not speaking the language. He used to joke: “Why weren’t you born as Italian or French?” The Czech language is one of the hardest languages you could learn. With its ancient grammar system of declensions and conjugations, combined with negotiating how to pronounce words with five consonants and no vowel, it is almost impossible to master even for the native speakers. Perhaps that is why not that many people speak it.

So here I am, back in Prague after fifteen years in the UK and nearly twenty years abroad. Mostly being patronised by everyone, which is probably a fair punishment for “desertion” and then daring to return.

The timing of the move was not ideal either. Yet somehow, sleeping on my parents’ sofa and working in the early hours of the morning, I managed to complete my portfolio for an MA at Newcastle University. Unfortunately, my parents get up early, too, so the luxury of two hours of quiet writing every morning I used to have in the UK, while the rest of my family was asleep, no longer exists. I hope I am going to be awarded my degree, and when I am, yes, I am going to celebrate. How I am going to celebrate!


Spring School Photo






From 1st – 5th April 2019 I participated in a Spring School, ‘Strange Meetings: Poetry’s Encounters with the World Around Us’, a Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts special poetry course at Newcastle University. The week of intensive creative practice explored poetry as a site of encounter with the world around us, focusing on history, visual art, music and translation as a source of poetic inspiration.

Monday’s tutor was Sinéad Morrissey, a wonderful poet and educator, who’s teaching I had already enjoyed for a semester as part of my syllabus in MA Writing Poetry at Newcastle University. In Sinéad’s session we explored Docupoetry (poetry which responds to current affairs), looking at models such as The Book of the Dead by Muriel Ruckeyser and more contemporary examples like Grenfell by Nick Laird. Prior to the class I had researched some aspects of current affairs and news topics, such as violent video games inspiring young people to commit acts of violence, with the intention of using the classroom work to begin to draft on this subject, but writing exercises and discussion took me in a different exciting direction and I began to draft poetry on new themes and in structures I had never anticipated trying out.

Gillian Allnutt taught our session on Tuesday. I found Gillian to be a magical lady. She has never taught me in a formal or informal capacity, but I have enjoyed her readings at literary events at The Lit and Phil Library, Newcastle, as well as The Newcastle Poetry Festival 2018 and have read her mysterious poetry in magazines I subscribe to like Poetry Ireland Review and Poetry Review. This session was very interactive, filled with lots of little exercises inspired by Music. An almost spiritual aura filled the room, floating somewhere between composition and choreography.


‘A poem can’t take the place of a plum, or an apple, but just as a painting can recreate, by illusion, the dimension it loses by being confined to canvas, so a poem, by its own system of illusions, can set up a rich and apparently living world within its particular limits’.

Sylvia Plath, 1961


Tara Bergin’s Wednesday class on Ekphrastic poetry was the session I was most looking forward to, partly because my forthcoming MPhil study at Newcastle University will incorporate some ekphrastic poetry into my pamphlet length sequence. I have loved Tara’s teaching on the MA Writing Poetry in the past and have found her to be a hugely supportive kind person. In the classroom we experimented with form and modes of expression like symbolism, metaphor and fragmentation. For one of the first times I actually enjoyed reading my poetry aloud in front of others and I found the writing exercises we did to be unexpected and interesting. More drafts of new poems were spun and nurtured.


Olivia McCannon’s NCLA First Thursday reading on National Poetry Day last year was very inspiring and I was enthusiastic to begin Thursday’s class on Translation. In this session we used a collaborative model to translate another poem from another language pooling the diverse strengths, skills and perspectives we could each bring to the table. We experimented with individual and communal ways of working and whilst questioning our relationships with the source, explored the transformative terrain of translation. I found this to be the most challenging class of all and initially struggled to comprehend the visual and written prompts we were studying but decided to create my own interpretations from what I could understand. Ironically, I found that my most successful poems came from this session, one of which I read aloud at Newcastle Poetry Festival 2019.


After a week of exploring various poetic intersections with the world around us and with lots of ideas gathered in our notebooks, we spent the final day of the course thinking about the process of Editing. Our teacher for the day, Sinéad Morrissey, talked us through editing principles and we were able to each workshop one of our drafts in class. I found the supportive atmosphere in the classroom to be hugely rewarding. I feel that insightful comments made by Sinéad and my fellow students improved my workshopped poem immensely. I observed some of the poems workshopped in class to be particularly beautiful, an experience which I found emotional and enchanting.











The Journey Begins

Our degrees are coming to an end, our plans for writing and bright creative futures are beginning. Please join me and Natalie Crick on our adventure.

In this blog, we are going to share our own writing or any submitted pieces we like. We are going to ponder over any new events nationally or internationally, talk about what we like reading, who inspires us.

Until next time, please keep reading, writing and smiling.

Natalie Nera